North Carolina state Rep. Sydney Batch (D) had planned to take off work this week as she recovered from a recent mastectomy procedure to treat her breast cancer. Instead, she spent it at the statehouse, making sure Republicans couldn’t come up with enough votes to pass new abortion-related restrictions into law.
North Carolina Republicans have been pushing to pass a “born alive” bill that would make it illegal for doctors not to help babies that somehow survived abortions. They’re just a handful of votes away from being able to override a recent veto from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D). Republicans put the bill on the legislative calendar for Monday. When it became clear they didn’t have the votes, they decided to shelve it and force Batch and the rest of the legislature to return day after day until they have the numbers.
“I was hoping to take three weeks off to recover, but unfortunately I did not have that ability,” Batch told TPM about the GOP’s latest effort. “When I realized that Monday, [Republicans were] planning to hold the vote it was worth physical sacrifice and pain to come in to vote. It was extremely important for me to vote.”
Her presence was needed. Republicans already overrode Cooper’s recent veto in the state Senate, and believe they are just three or four votes away from being able to do the same in the state House. If enough Democrats hadn’t shown up, they would have been able to ram through the legislation, since all their members attended session on Monday — a rarity in a chamber where members on both sides regularly miss votes.
The bill is modeled after one crafted by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) that fell short in the U.S. Senate. It would require that doctors provide the same care for a child born alive during a failed abortion attempt as any other baby of that age. Doctors who don’t would face felony charges, while the women who underwent the abortion procedure would face new civil penalties. Supporters of the legislation argue it’s necessary to protect children who survive late-term abortions. Critics point out that almost never happens, that doctors are already required to take care of living children, and say this would risk criminalizing abortion doctors. The bill has been used as a political wedge issue for pro-life politicians to argue their opponents support infanticide.
Democrats are furious about the bill itself — and accuse North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R) of trying to take advantage of their ailing members to grind down the Democrats until they pick off enough members to pass the legislation.
“The House continues to put [the bill] on its calendar every day, and every day we don’t hear it,” House Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D) told TPM. “They’re trying to take advantage of life circumstances. We have a member who has breast cancer and had surgery about two weeks ago today, was supposed to come back later next week, and they were trying to take advantage of her absence and others’. We have another whose husband is in the hospital who’s being forced to come to session every day. Once they see they’re not missing any Democrats they just move it to the next day and we go home.”
The procedural fight belies a broader point. Republicans are looking to use bills like this to paint Democrats as abortion extremists who support infanticide, part of their nationwide strategy to restrict or ban abortion across the country. The North Carolina bill comes shortly after a court struck down a 2013 GOP law in the state that put further restrictions on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. And while it’s nowhere near as restrictive as many other abortion-focused laws being pushed by Republicans in statehouses around the country, it’s part of a broader messaging strategy by anti-abortion rights forces.
The seemingly insidery tactical fight over the bill is the latest in a decade of North Carolina Republicans leveraging every ounce of their power to push the swing state in a dramatically conservative direction. They drew themselves heavily gerrymandered state legislative maps aimed at veto-proof majorities that only cracked after court rulings forced some changes and Democrats had a strong 2018 election.
With those big majorities, Republicans overrode veto after veto by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue (D) after seizing control of the legislature in 2010, and passed deeply controversial legislation including their infamous “bathroom bill” once they won the governorship. Cooper’s 2016 win gave Democrats a bit of a check, and Democrats won enough seats in the 2018 wave to help him sustain a veto — if they’re all present.
Moore argued Democrats are focusing on the procedural fight because they don’t want to talk about the underlying bill. He disputed that the bill was about abortion, arguing it was to ban the “absolutely heinous” practice of killing babies who weren’t successfully aborted in utero. He said that has occurred, though he admitted it’d been many years since there was any evidence of that happening in the state.
Moore says he gave Democrats ample heads up that the bill would likely be considered on Monday, something Republicans haven’t always done over the past decade, and only pulled it when he knew he’d be short votes.
“All they have to do is be here to do their job and prevent me from passing it if they’re opposed to it. Hopefully the Democrats who are against it will join the Democrats who vote for it and vote with us,” he told TPM.
Moore didn’t have a clear answer on why he wouldn’t just take the bill off the calendar for now and bring it back up when he had the votes, rather than force lawmakers on both sides to make it into the office every day of the legislative session even if they have health issues or personal emergencies.
One thing Moore and Democrats can agree on is this isn’t the first time the tactic has been used.
Republicans made similar efforts on a handful of other pieces of legislation in recent years, putting controversial bills on the official legislative calendar day after day until enough members of the opposition missed a vote that they could ram it through.
That occurred when conservatives overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s (R) veto in 2015 to pass a law that would allow local officials to refuse issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Similar efforts by the GOP to rush through legislation in the dead of night when too many Democrats were missing to block bills were carried out going back to 2012 — back when now-Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) ran the state House.
Jackson said one of his mentors, former state Rep. William Wainwright (D), had spent his last weeks on earth shuttling back and forth to the capitol to make sure the GOP couldn’t push through other controversial legislation using gerrymandered supermajorities.
“He had esophageal cancer. They knew he was sick, he’d lost a lot of weight,” Jackson said. “He spent the last two weeks of his life coming back and forth into session trying to make sure they didn’t have those vetoes.”
The GOP’s veto override vote on this abortion-related measure can occur anytime during session between now and the end of 2020 — and this standoff could carry on for some time.
“We’re going to keep it on there for a while,” Moore said.